JAMESTOWN — Chautauqua County government needs to reduce expenses while raising revenues and opportunities for economic development, according to the two men seeking to be the county executive for the next term of office.
County Executive P.J. Wendel and Democratic challenger Rich Morrisroe traded light barbs, ideas and opinions during Thursday evening’s debate in downtown Jamestown.
Asked how the county can stay solvent as the impact of COVID-19 is felt and could still be an issue in the next several years, Morrisroe said the county must cut expenses while seeking ways to increased revenue.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t increase revenue and we don’t reduce costs, and it works on both sides of that equation, we can’t operate as we have these past years,” Morrisroe said. He warned that Chautauqua County could become a “ghost county” if the economic issues are not handled better.
Wendel said he and his administration made $5.1 million in adjustments to the budget as the situation with the pandemic fluctuated.
Wendel said he cut spending, reduced costs and retained work force with furloughs, not layoffs.
“We will continue, as we move forward, to make those hard decisions,” Wendel said. “The bottom line is we’ve done this, I’ve done this as county executive.”
Wendel said his government service experience, coupled with his passion and vision for the county, will help lead the community into a better future.
“As your county executive, I will continue to focus on our past success and the future of Chautauqua County,” Wendel said.
Morrisroe countered that a new “fresh perspective” and new leadership are needed because doing things the same way and expecting better results does not work.
“Wouldn’t it be great if Chautauqua County could just do better, be more stable,” he asked. He said he wants a county in which the next generation could stay in the area and find good careers.
“I have the education, professional and life experience to make Chautauqua County a better place to live, work and play,” Morrisroe said.
In a related matter, consolidation of services took part of the discussion on stage.
Wendel said the county his human services cabinet is looking at ways to save money through streamlining billing and called for unity across the isle instead of using the bully pulpit, a reaction to Morrisroe saying the county executive can influence areas outside of county government through using his bully pulpit.
Morrisroe suggested as county executive he could discuss the issue of school districts consolidating administrative services so as to reduce school taxes, which he said are the most expensive of the property taxes in the county.
“We don’t have the power to dictate school policy, but we have the bully pulpit,” he said.
Wendel told Morrisroe that the state, not the counties, dictate school policies.
Wendel said consolidation is nothing new and the public often brings it up, but defeats it in the referendum.
Morrisroe said people need to learn that they can keep their identity while changing their government.
People should consider what’s possible, Morrisroe said.
“Imagination is our friend, knowledge is our enemy,” Morrisroe said. “It’s not about what we’re doing, it’s about what we can do.”
“I’m all about collaboration across all boundaries, not just the political isle,” he said.
On a few occasions, Morrisroe related experiences or ideas from Erie County.
“We’ll probably hear this a lot tonight, Erie County, this is Chautauqua County and the position is Chautauqua County Executive,” Wendel said.
“I know where I live. I chose to move here to Chautauqua County. I moved my family here. You were a kid, you had no choice, your father moved you here.”Morrisroe responded.
Morrisroe warned that the county isn’t in a bubble and needs to work with regional governments and markets.
Both men said the county needs to reach out to create better business and employment opportunities.
“We used to beat China, Taiwan and Japan, everything was made here in our areas. We were the producers,”Morrisroe said.
Wendel countered that the county IDA is creating a stir in business circles.
The problem has been what types of businesses and jobs have been targeted, Morrisroe said.
“Over the last few years we’ve just swung for any potential job or any potential employer,” he said. “We have to focus on what the future holds, we have to look forward, we can’t look backward.”
Morrisroe said he hopes to “light the fire of hope” and is running for office because “I believe we can do more and I believe we can do better.”
He said he wants to help shape a county that is the envy of the state.
Saying he is honored and humbled to be county executive, Wendel said there is more to do and he has the experience and knowledge to do what is needed.
“I made Chautauqua County my home,” Wendel said. “I have dedicated my life to the service of the residence of Chautauqua County.”
He said he seeks unity of effort to improve the county for all residents and create effective results.